Monday, March 1, 2021

REWIND: The Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)

TSPDT Rank #43

Initial viewing: c. 2007

"Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves..."

The Night of the Hunter is one of the strangest and most unclassifiable films ever to come out of the classic Hollywood studio system. On the surface, it’s a film noir thriller about some hidden bank robbery loot and the ominous preacher who searches for it. But while its basic story may be pure film noir, it’s also a throwback to the broad strokes approach of the silent era--with elements of D.W. Griffith epics, German expressionism, and slapstick comedy all thrown into the mix. Together with its blatantly unrealistic set design, Capra-esque sentimentality, and a larger-than-life performance from Robert Mitchum, these elements all combine to create a beguiling and fantastic film that is as difficult to describe as it is to resist.

Adding to the film’s mystique is the fact that it’s the only film ever to be directed by the great Charles Laughton. A hulking British expat who achieved Hollywood success with his towering performances in films such as The Private Life of Henry VIII, Mutiny on the Bounty and The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the 1930s, he was certainly an odd choice to direct a Southern Gothic thriller set on the banks of the Ohio River. But by all accounts, he oversaw the film with a perfectionism and clarity of vision usually only seen from seasoned directors at the peak of their talents. His extensive acting experience also allowed him to develop an usually close bond with his actors, drawing out raw and otherworldly performances that are highly unusual for their era.

Although The Night of the Hunter failed to achieve success upon its initial release, it soon achieved an unusually early cult following--thanks to its regular presence on late night television in the 1960s and ‘70s. Moving with the deliberate logic and uncanny precision of a dream, The Night of the Hunter is perhaps most effective on the young and unsuspecting, like the best horror movies. For those expecting a suspenseful thriller, it will likely seem too strange and tonally inconsistent. At one moment, we see Mitchum’s preacher threaten his two adopted children with a knife--with a casual aura of evil so convincing that we really fear for the children’s lives. But at the next moment, we see him slip on a fruit jar, lumber up the stairs in a parody of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, and howl like a wounded animal when the children narrowly escape into the river.

The film’s final act focuses on the children and their attempt to escape from the preacher, with the action taking on the aura of a fairy tale. The children float down the river across a background of twinkling stars and animals twice their size, as lullabies lull them to sleep. When the preacher does appear, he does so only as a silhouette in the distance--a symbol of evil beyond the children’s comprehension. The kindly old woman who comes to their rescue (played by silent era icon Lillian Gish) is just as inconceivably good as the preacher is inconceivably evil. And when the final showdown comes, it remains firmly in the realm of symbolism--with the old woman and the preacher singing competing versions of the same hymn just like they were drawing pistols in the street. Despite its disregard for realism and narrative conventions, The Night of the Hunter always retains its hypnotic pull and childlike urgency. Never before or since has the battle between good and evil felt so elemental.

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